As a Christian preacher listening to the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., it's somewhat gratifying to be reminded that words matter. Those of us who accept this vocation wouldn't have it any other way. We spend hours agonizing over words every week - words written in the Bible, translated from Hebrew and Greek; words that we parse, translate again, memorize, seek to understand, and ultimately shape into a new word in the sermon. But in recent days, as more and more commentators have dismissed Mr. Wright as the "crazy uncle in the attic," my pleasure has turned to anger and dismay.
Don't get me wrong. I do not agree with Mr. Wright's choice of words in the 30 seconds that have been played again and again on national television. I think his claim that our government created the HIV virus to destroy the black community is irresponsible, and "God damn America" is a terrible sound bite anyway you slice it. Had I been a parishioner in his church, I might well have told him so. Moreover, Mr. Wright's recent comment equating attacks on himself with attacks on "the black church" raises disturbing questions about a man who apparently believes his own substantial ego authorizes him to speak for an entity that is more diverse than ever.
But some of the rhetoric in recent days has turned from a condemnation of these remarks to a condemnation of the prophetic role entrusted to the pulpit, from a critique of Mr. Wright's preaching to a total denunciation of his ministry (and others like it), and from an inquiry into black liberation theology to claims of "reverse racism" and hatred of whites. The change in the conversation confirms exactly the kinds of claims that Mr. Wright has made in the past: that racism still affects every area of our life together and will not be easily overcome with the common white appeal to "stop talking about the past."
Mr. Wright's church has been criticized for being "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." In Mr. Wright's church, young black men are mentored by successful black men. They promise to support black families, black institutions and black churches. Ironically, the absence of this kind of moral education aimed at strengthening the black family is the very criticism leveled at "the black community" by some of these same white pundits in the past.
To be unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian is not being racist but being honest about who you are and whom you are called to serve. Understanding the legacy of African-American experience, where black people were taught by white missionaries that to become Christian one must also adopt European customs, values, and culture, Mr. Wright's church teaches that one need not choose between honoring one's heritage and living the Christian faith. In this context, "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian" is good news.
This same kind of honesty is often lacking in predominantly white churches, with decidedly European stained glass images of Jesus and musical repertoires. Unlike Mr. Wright's congregation, many of our churches say that we welcome "all people" while in fact, our culture is just as insular as Mr. Wright's. Only by honestly facing this disconnect can we begin to develop relationships that lead to more racial and economic diversity in our congregations.
The Southside Chicago where Mr. Wright's ministry began doesn't sound all that different from much of Baltimore. Poverty rates are astronomical, young black people are disproportionately at risk, educational systems fail many students, and too many youths - especially young black men - end up selling drugs, going to prison, and giving up.
Those who struggle against this path have to fight against stereotypes that dismiss their potential even before they are given a chance. Any preacher living or working in that context, reading the words of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah or Jesus, will have harsh words for a government and a people that settle for this kind of immoral reality.
And here is the crux of my dismay with the Jeremiah Wright situation: While many of us in middle-class churches - black and white - go on preaching words of comfort to the comfortable, words of prosperity to the prosperous, the poor and the oppressed to whom Jesus promised good news and release continue to suffer. The gospel promises that communities, even nations, will be judged not simply for wrong actions but for silence in the face of this kind of systemic injustice.
However poorly Jeremiah Wright may have chosen his words in the past, he has fulfilled the calling of a preacher: to testify to the presence of the living, redeeming God who promises good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed. I fear the same cannot be said for many of the rest of us who have been entrusted with this vocation.
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.